A roster made up of candidates for the U.S. National Junior Team skated away with a 3-2 overtime victory over Team Sweden today in its first pre-World Junior Championship tune-up. The game was expected to be an important evaluation point for Team USA as it still has three cuts to make by Dec. 22.
After today’s contest, in which all of the players on the bubble for the final roster played, it’s going to be an even tougher decision than previously thought.
The U.S. scratched its two top defensemen coming into the tournament in Seth Jones and Jacob Trouba, its projected top line of Johnny Gaudreau, J.T. Miller and Rocco Grimaldi, and its starting goalie John Gibson. Sweden played most of their big guns like Hampus Lindholm, Elias Lindholm, Filip Forsberg and Sebastian Collberg. To come away with a 3-2 win in a penalty-filled game is a good result for the United States.
More than anything, it gives Team USA’s staff a really strong evaluation point to see who fits where. The only problem now is, who can they cut? Your guess is probably as good as mine. It’s only three guys, but I do not envy that staff right now.
Coming up after the jump, stats from the game, a look at the lineup, who stood out, who didn’t and where to go from here…
Here’s a quick look at Team USA’s starting lineup today. Due to the immense amount of penalties, it was tough to get much rhythm with any of these groupings and they got jumbled (particularly on D), but it’s a good point of reference.
Galchenyuk – Kuraly – Lucia
Vesey – Trocheck – Biggs
Pietila – Bardreau – Hartman
Matteau – no C – Barber
Sieloff – Reilly
Gostisbehere – Skjei
McCabe – Murphy
Sparks – Gillies
Goals Scored by: Connor Murphy, Ryan Hartman, Shayne Gostisbehere (OT GWG)
Assists by: Jim Vesey, Sean Kuraly, Vince Trocheck, Mario Lucia
Saves/goals against: Garret Sparks — 17/1, Jon Gillies (W) — 18/1
Player of the Game Award: Jim Vesey
— Team USA came out of the gates flying, showing off that tremendous team speed and deadly transition game that they’ll hope to have clicking come tournament time. The pace of the game slowed as it went on, as players are still trying to get their legs under them. Additionally Team USA gave a lot more minutes to the players they needed to see the most which could have worn some of them down a bit. Not to mention the fact that they just got to Finland yesterday.
— The way this team is structured, and seeing them go live for the first time, should get USA fans a little more excited. This team isn’t going to be favored to win the tournament, but the way it is built is going to give them a chance for success. To see how well they played for the first 30 minutes, without all of those big-time players, is really something. Team USA is going to be an awful lot of fun to watch.
— The amount of penalties called in the game were abhorrent. The referees called it really tight, which I suppose will mirror the IIHF games, but both of the teams today were trying to get good evaluations of their players. To have special teams out so much that sucked time away from other guys that needed it. The refs were probably being evaluated, too, but these games have to be officiated in a way that keeps control, but also in a way where it doesn’t just become a special teams scrimmage.
— Though the game was called tight, the U.S. has to focus on limiting stick penalties. They have too much speed to get called for hooks and holds. That denotes laziness on the offender and that can’t happen in the tournament. As good as the PK looked at times today, you don’t want to be trotting them out there a few times a period like today.
— The one area I thought the U.S. was lacking in was the physical game, particularly on the back end. There wasn’t a lot of body-on-body today, which doesn’t seem how this team was built. There are enough guys that like to play the body that I expected to see a lot more of that.
— The goaltending was fine today. Sparks gave up a soft goal, but recovered really well in shutting down a very steady Swedish attack. Gillies looked confident between the pipes and showed off his good size and some more athleticism than I remembered him having.
— Here’s a look at how the players fared today. Note: Not all players are mentioned. Those that aren’t just means I didn’t get a real strong read on them one way or the other today.
Connor Murphy — D — I thought Murphy was Team USA’s best and most consistent player today. He played a lot early and his ice time dwindled late, mainly because the team needed to get a look at some other guys. He scored the game’s first goal on a beautiful shot showing patience in allowing the lane to open up and rifling the puck over the goalies glove. He showed improved hands and skating today and could be a good safety net for Team USA on the back end. I think he deserves a letter on his jersey as well.
Cole Bardreau — F — Through the first period, Bardreau was Team USA’s best forward. He’s playing a grinder type of role, but he has such speed and tenacity that he was able to get a few offensive chances as well. He was great on the PK and was a terror for opposing D on the forecheck. He even the body around a bit. He’s a role player, but he’s really good at that role.
Shayne Gostisbehere — D — It wasn’t all good for Gostisbehere, who took a pair of bad stick penalties, but his game-winning goal was a terrific shot. Gostisbehere also showed off tremendous speed and poise with the puck. He got a lot of power-play time and looked good while out there. Still can’t believe that he looks faster than he did in August. He could be poised for a breakout tournament.
Mario Lucia — F — Lucia also saw his time dwindle down the stretch of the game, but his feather pass to Ryan Hartman for Team USA’s second goal was just beautiful. It came after Lucia forced a turnover and from the tip of his backhand was able to flip the pass tape-to-tape for an easy goal for Hartman. Lucia showed good speed and offensive sense today.
Alex Galchenyuk — F — It took him a while to get going, but as the game went on Galchenyuk was a continual threat. He made some beautiful moves to beat the D and was able to find time and space in the offensive zone. He has good wheels and the hands are just ridiculous. The U.S. has so often lacked a player of his ability. He could have a huge, huge tournament.
Others of Note
Mike Reilly — D — I think Reilly had the type of game he needed to have to give himself a chance to make the final roster. Reilly has such terrific speed and creativity with the puck. I never felt like he looked like a liability defensively, even though he took chances jumping into the play. He made a good case to earn strong consideration.
Jim Vesey — F — Another bubble guy who needed to have a good game today, Vesey did. He was named player of the game. It’s not the choice I would have made, but hey, Vesey had to take a college final this morning for Harvard. He had to get up extra early for it too. He got better as the game went on and adjusted to the pace. He showed good speed and more poise with the puck. The only concern I’d have with Vesey is his ability to process the game at the speed Team USA is trying to play it at. Other than that, he looked pretty solid.
Matt Grzelcyk — D — Not noticeable at times, and really noticeable at others, Grzelcyk had a sound game. He showed off his high end skating and vision and was able to open up the ice a bit. He’s really good in transition and got some good time on special teams.
Vince Trocheck — F — I liked what Trochek brought to the table today with his skating and grit. He saw a lot of ice time in key situations and often delivered. I liked that he was with Vesey and Tyler Biggs a lot. That line could be interesting. We’ll see if that stays in tact on Saturday.
Sean Kuraly — F — Another guy who came into the game as perhaps more of a bubble player saw a lot of time with Galchenyuk and Lucia. He’s not a very flashy player, but he showed his good speed and ability to find the soft areas of the ice. I’d like to see him use his size a little better, but he had a solid game. He won the faceoff clean to Gostisbehere for the game-winning goal. I mean clean. He was great on draws much of the game.
Ryan Hartman — F — I liked Hartman filling his role as more of a grind-it-out type guy, but I also thought he showed good offensive ability. He scored Team USA’s second goal on a great finish from the Lucia pass. He has such versatility, which is why I think the U.S. can be confident in what he brings to the table.
Blake Pietila — F — He fits his role well, but created a few scoring opportunities with his feet. I think he, with Bardreau and Hartman, give the U.S. a reliable line that can provide defense, a heavy forecheck and maybe even the odd goal.
Brady Skjei — D — Skjei got a lot of time early in this game and I think he needed it to prove he’s ready for this tournament. I think he had some questionable decisions in his own zone, but as the game kept moving along he seemed to get better. When he was skating in open ice and using his strengths, he looked just fine, but I don’t know if he did enough today to move himself off the bubble.The big question for Skjei right now is, is he ready for this tournament? He has another year of eligibility and while experience this year would be good, I’m uncertain it’s his time just yet.
Riley Barber — F — I thought Barber was going to fill the void left by Stefan Noesen pretty well, but the move to put Lucia on his off wing (the right) means Barber might have to battle a bit harder for a spot. I don’t think he played poorly, but he wasn’t effective enough in the shifts he had. He saw some power-play time and had a few good rushes, but you’d expect more out of the top freshman scorer in the country. That combined with the solid play of Lucia and then Vesey having a strong game is going to put Barber back to bubble status.
The way today went, I think it’s even harder to predict who will get sent home than it was before the team took off for Finland. The U.S. has to get down to 23, meaning two defensemen and one forward have to go. No matter who they send home, that player will be left wondering what more he could have done. As tough as that decision will be, it’s the right kind of problem to have for the U.S.